Author Topic: Russia-Turkey, Georgia, Caucuses, Central Asia  (Read 71218 times)

Crafty_Dog

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GPF: Caucasus,
« Reply #150 on: September 29, 2020, 08:47:01 AM »
September 29, 2020   Open as PDF



    The Fighting in the Caucasus
By: George Friedman

Fighting has broken out again over Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave inside Azerbaijan nominally controlled by Azerbaijan but governed by ethnic Armenians. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, it has been beset by low-level, intermittent skirmishes, but this round seems to be more serious, with reports from either side suggesting more than 500 Armenian servicemembers and 200 Azerbaijani troops are dead, not to mention that vehicles and other equipment have been destroyed.
 
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The unusually high body count makes this episode of fighting important, but Nagorno-Karabakh’s geographic location in the Caucasus makes it geopolitically relevant. Empires have fought over this territory for millennia – the most frequent belligerents were Russian, Turkish and Iranian – but now that the states within the Caucasus are independent, it is more of a proxy battleground over precious global real estate. This year, Turkey expressed its support for Azerbaijan, a country with which Turkey has linguistic and cultural affinities. Russia tends to play both sides but has troops based only in Armenia. Iran has a very large ethnic Azeri population, some of whom, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, hold high positions of power. Azerbaijan’s government is basically secular and mistrusts Iranian intentions. Iran is equally cautious; though it has an interest in trade, it has satisfied that interest through Armenia. (Georgia, which fought a war with Russia in 2008, has had closer ties to Azerbaijan and Turkey.)

Russia’s interest in the Caucasus is simple: It was one of the only effective avenues of invading the heartland. (The other, from the west, creates a need for strategic depth, hence Moscow’s enduring interest in Belarus.) The Caucasus is divided into two parts by a river valley. Russia lost the southern portion when the Soviet Union fell, but it still de facto controls the northern portion, and so long as it does, Russia can rest a little easier. However, much of the North Caucasus is rebellious by nature, often because of the radical brand of Islamism that is bred there, which is why Moscow has ruthlessly suppressed movements in places such as Dagestan and Chechnya. The Russian strategy is to prevent a threat from the south by holding the north and keeping the south off balance.

Turkey’s northeastern frontier is anchored in the South Caucasus, bordering Georgia and Armenia. Historically, its interest there has been Russia. Though it still considers Moscow a direct competitor, the fall of the Soviet Union has made the Kurds, who occupy various parts of the Caucasus, Turkey’s number one security interest. Armenia and Turkey have been bitter enemies over what the Armenians regard as a Turkish genocide that took place after World War I, and which the Turks bitterly deny. The distrust between the two countries is intense.
 
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Northern Iran was occupied during World War II by the Soviets. The area they occupied was largely Azeri, but when they left they kept what is now Azerbaijan while northern Iran was returned to Iran proper. Iran has a complex relationship with Azerbaijan, which is far less Islamic than Iran, and which has energy resources Iran wants. Iran has little interest in Caucasian conflict but is interested in dealing with each of the countries.

These are just some of the reasons that alliances in the Caucasus, already ambiguous at best, shift quickly. Armenia has maintained close ties with Russia, which uses it to maintain a balance of power in the region. Also supporting Armenia is Iran, an important trade partner and buffer state. Turkey is increasingly working with Azerbaijan, a move that is linked to efforts to expand regional Turkish influence. Georgia is close to the U.S. but not as important a priority as the Georgians would like, and it too is moving close to Turkey, with which it has transportation links and mutual interests in the Black Sea.

None of these relationships is fixed in stone and all of them are coupled with complex relations with other countries. No doors are locked, but at the same time wars in this region cannot be waged intensely without the support of either Russia or Turkey (Iran would play a role as a subsidiary of Russia). In that sense, the recent fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh is, much like Syria and Libya, another dimension of the Russo-Turkish rivalry. Already there are reports that Turkey has sent mercenaries from Syria to support Azerbaijan.

The fighting might well die down. Neither Azerbaijan nor Armenia wants to pay a steep price for Nagorno-Karabakh, and neither Russia nor Turkey is ready for a serious test of power, even if they were confident in where they stood. What is most interesting is the absence of the U.S. Washington has a long record of intervening in areas where it has limited interests, and where the price for achieving little will be high. This is why it was involved in the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, on Georgia’s side. It is now content to let Russia, Turkey and Iran balance each other.   

======================================

    Daily Memo: Confusion Reigns in Nagorno-Karabakh
By: Geopolitical Futures

Scorekeeping in Nagorno-Karabakh. On Monday, day two of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan, losses continued to mount. Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian enclave at the center of the fight, said 53 of its soldiers died fighting Azerbaijani forces on Monday, a day after self-reporting 31 deaths. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan published videos of the fighting and made conflicting claims about the damage they had inflicted on the other. Shortly before publication, Armenia's Defense Ministry said a Turkish F-16 shot down an Armenian Su-25 in Armenia's airspace on Tuesday morning, killing the pilot. A Turkish government spokesman denied this.

At the behest of five European states – Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany and the United Kingdom – the U.N. Security Council will discuss the worsening situation in a closed-door session on Tuesday. The Russian State Duma urged an immediate cease-fire and offered to mediate. Amid rumors that Turkey sent Syrian mercenaries to assist Azerbaijan, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman denied allegations that Tehran had allowed weapons and military hardware to transit through its territory to Armenia, saying the claims were intended to destroy friendly relations between Iran and Azerbaijan.
« Last Edit: September 29, 2020, 09:15:57 AM by Crafty_Dog »

Crafty_Dog

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GPF: France, Russia and the U.S. issued a statement urging a cease-fire and
« Reply #151 on: October 01, 2020, 01:01:49 PM »
France, Russia and the U.S. issued a statement urging a cease-fire and negotiations in Nagorno-Karabakh.
By: Geopolitical Futures

Stop fighting. That was the message to Armenia and Azerbaijan on Thursday from the presidents of France, Russia and the United States. Specifically, the statement by the three co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Minsk Group called for the immediate end of hostilities and for the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan to resume good faith negotiations without preconditions. Separately, Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron spoke by phone, and according to the French side’s readout, they “shared their concern regarding the sending of Syrian mercenaries by Turkey to Nagorno-Karabakh.” (Turkey backs Azerbaijan in the conflict over the Armenian separatist enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.) It’s an accusation that has been making the rounds in recent days, though Paris offered no evidence to support it, and Russia’s Foreign Ministry has said only that “illegal armed units” from Libya and Syria are present, without attributing responsibility for that presence. In the meantime, Dubai-based Al Arabiya reported that Israel has been sending weapons to Azerbaijan.

As for the fighting itself, the most notable development is that five mortar rounds reportedly landed on Iranian territory, destroying two housing units. Nagorno-Karabakh’s forces also said they had shot down two Azerbaijani planes and a helicopter, the latter of which went down in Iran. Azerbaijan denied this.

Crafty_Dog

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GPF: Iran nervously watches Nagorno-Karabakh
« Reply #152 on: October 07, 2020, 04:59:27 PM »
   
    Daily Memo: Iran Nervously Watches Nagorno-Karabakh
Azerbaijani troops are reportedly gathering near the Iranian border.
By: Geopolitical Futures
Fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh risks drawing in others. Azerbaijani forces are gathering near the Iranian border in preparation for an offensive, according to an Armenian Defense Ministry representative. He said Azerbaijan hopes to provoke forces from the mostly ethnically Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh into firing at the massing troops, endangering Iran in the process. In the meantime, fighting continues along the Line of Contact in the disputed region, and Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry threatened to retaliate using “weapons with great destructive power” if Armenia deploys Iskander short-range ballistic missiles against it. On Tuesday, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said in an interview that his government and Nagorno-Karabakh were prepared to make concessions if Azerbaijan did the same.
Also on Tuesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke with his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, to express his government’s concern and hope for a swift, peaceful resolution. Aliyev reportedly said Azerbaijan’s troops would reoccupy captured land near the border and establish border infrastructure there. The commander of the Iranian Border Guards also said the guards were “vigilant” and had been “moved into the necessary formation.”
Finally, there’s Turkey and Russia. On Tuesday, Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, was in Azerbaijan, where he said Turkey would act “together as one state” with Azerbaijan, if necessary. The Kremlin’s spokesman, on the other hand, stressed Wednesday that Russia’s defense obligations to Armenia, a fellow member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, do not apply to Nagorno-Karabakh.
Taiwan’s $15 billion “step in the right direction.” The United States wants Taiwan to spend a lot more on defense. At an annual semi-official bilateral defense conference on Monday, senior Taiwanese officials gave their U.S. counterparts a lengthy military shopping list. The U.S. side, evidently, didn’t think it was long enough. On Tuesday, David Helvey, the acting U.S. assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, said Taiwan’s proposed $15.2 billion defense budget for the upcoming year – a 10 percent increase over 2019’s budget – is merely a “step in the right direction” and "insufficient to ensure that Taiwan can leverage its geography, advanced technology, workforce and patriotic population to channel Taiwan’s inherent advantages necessary for a resilient defense.”
Taiwan has immense geographical advantages over China, but its military hasn’t been optimized around deterring a seaborne Chinese assault. This is starting to change, and Taiwan’s new defense budget reflects growing political will to take painful measures to boost Taiwan’s deterrence capacity. But it’s unclear just how much more defense spending the Taiwanese economy and political system can sustain. One current problem: Taiwan is apparently spending gobs of money – an astounding $900 million this year alone – just on scrambling to respond to Chinese air incursions.
Additional Intelligence
•   The Turkish lira fell to 7.8787 per U.S. dollar, a new low, as fighting continued in the South Caucasus and Washington again warned Turkey not to test its Russian-made S-400 air defense system.
•   Former rival Palestinian movements Fatah and Hamas agreed on a roadmap to restructure Palestinian institutions and end division after a round of reconciliation talks.
•   Poland’s antitrust office imposed fines totaling 29 billion zlotys ($7.6 billion) on Russian energy giant Gazprom over construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany, saying the project breaks fair competition rules and will create increased dependents on Gazprom. Another $61 million in fines were imposed on five international companies involved in the project: France's Engie, Austria's OMV, British-Dutch Shell, and Germany’s Uniper and Wintershall.
•   Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in Qatar for meetings with the country’s emir and defense minister and Turkey’s ambassador.
•   The United Kingdom will loan Ukraine 1.25 billion pounds ($1.61 billion) for the construction of naval vessels.   


Crafty_Dog

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Re: Russia-Turkey, Georgia, Caucasus, Central Asia
« Reply #153 on: October 08, 2020, 02:48:43 PM »
F-16s Reveal Turkey's Drive to Expand Its Role in the Southern Caucasus
5 MINS READ
Oct 8, 2020 | 20:19 GMT

Confirmation of Turkish F-16 fighter aircraft operating out of Azerbaijan amid conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh illustrates Turkish commitment to challenging Russian hegemony in the Southern Caucasus. Satellite imagery published by The New York Times showed Turkish F-16s at Ganja airbase on Oct. 3, just four days after Armenia claimed that F-16s shot down one of its Su-25 attack aircraft during a mission along the Nagorno-Karabakh frontline. The presence of the Turkish fighter aircraft doesn't prove their involvement in the downing of the jet, but it does demonstrate direct military involvement by Turkey that goes far beyond already-established support, such as its provision of Syrian fighters and military equipment to Azerbaijani forces.

Ankara's resolve to support the Azerbaijani offensive on Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh poses an immediate challenge to Moscow's position in the Southern Caucasus. So far, Russia has sought to manage tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan to prevent outside powers from stepping into the fray.
 
July clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan likely provided the opportunity and cover for Turkey to help prepare an Azerbaijani offensive that supports longer term Turkish ambitions in the Southern Caucasus. Turkey has long sought to increase its influence in Azerbaijan to boosts its foothold in the Southern Caucasus, a region where Turkish and Russian ambitions are in competition. Greater tensions with Armenia likely made Azerbaijan more open to greater Turkish support, and hence more willing to contest Armenia's control over Nagorno-Karabakh. Sustained increased activity along the contact line separating Armenian and Azerbaijani forces may have helped obscure preparations for military operations that began Sept. 27.

Four days of clashes on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border that started July 12, at the time the most intense escalation between the two countries since 2016 fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, triggered close interaction between the Turkish and Azerbaijani military.

On July 16, the Azerbaijani Deputy Minister of Defense and high-ranking military commanders visited Turkey, initiating a conversation that likely led to the planning of currently ongoing operations.

By July 29, Turkish forces joined their Azerbaijani counterparts for two weeks of military exercises that included the deployment of Turkish F-16s to Ganja airbase.

Following the July escalation and intensified interaction with the Turkish military, increased back-and-forth artillery fire on the contact line was sustained while Azerbaijan upgraded defensive positions and moved military equipment forward in preparation for current operations.

Turkey has demonstrated a reliable mitigation strategy with Russia over the course of conflicts in Syria and Libya, limiting the potential for a direct sustained conflict between the two powers. While the move will increase Russo-Turkish tensions, these ultimately will prove manageable under Russian and Turkey's existing model for bilateral mediation and deescalation.  Direct military involvement in Azerbaijani operations against Armenia risks creating yet another theater where Turkish and Russian forces directly face each other. The current Turkish involvement has not yet prompted a Russian military response in support of Armenia; Moscow has likely been reluctant to do so in a bid to maintain a balance in its relations with Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Additional Turkish deployments or direct engagement in combat operations may, however, force Russia to deploy forces to Armenian-controlled territory. Should this come to pass, sustained combat between Russia and Turkey still remains unlikely. As proven in conflicts in Syria and Libya — where Russia and Turkey have each supported opposing sides and have even seen limited direct engagements — the two countries have developed a reliable method for deescalation and stabilization. In this case, direct Turkish and Russian deployments are more likely to stabilize the contact line in Nagorno-Karabakh than they are to erupt into a greater conflict. An expansion of Turkish involvement would thus become more likely only if Azerbaijan were to struggle to hold territory.
 
In the longer term, sustained economic weakness will limit Turkey's ability to support its external ambitions, but at this point, its capabilities will support its aggressive foreign policy. A Turkish perception of future limited capabilities may in fact even propel Turkey to pursue an aggressive foreign policy while it still can. While making its power plays on its periphery, mounting Turkish economic underperformance continues to threaten its ambitions in the long term. The Turkish lira has continued to weaken, forcing the government to adjust its monetary policy, and the lira took a further hit from Turkish involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis. Its current economic struggles will not, however, impede an aggressive foreign policy or even military capabilities in the short-term.

Turkey has conducted multiple military offensives in Syria. It maintains a presence in rebel-held areas of Idlib and along the northern border of Syria despite direct confrontations with the Syrian and Russian militaries.

In response to the Libyan National Army's offensive on Tripoli in April 2019, Turkey deployed military assets to support the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, prompting increased Russian military support for the Libyan National Army.

In the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey has ratcheted up territorial disputes with Greece and Cyprus as it furthers its ambitions to develop offshore energy resources, leading to a wider standoff with the European Union.

Turkey has also challenged the European Union directly on other issues, using its ability to increase or lower refugee flows for leverage.

In the Southern Caucasus, Turkey has sought to expand its influence through its relationships with Azerbaijan and Georgia, and is now doing so by military involvement in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Crafty_Dog

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GPF: Russia's low key problem in Kyrgyzstan
« Reply #154 on: October 14, 2020, 03:23:48 AM »
Russia’s Low-Key Problem in Kyrgyzstan
Instability in this overlooked nation could upset the balance of power in Central Asia.
By: Ekaterina Zolotova

On Oct. 4, Kyrgyzstan held parliamentary elections that, true to form, ended in political unrest. Rallies broke out the next day, leaving more than 1,200 injured in the ensuing clashes. Protesters seized the parliament building. They released former President Almazbek Atambayev from prison and have called for the removal from office of current President Sooronbai Jeenbekov.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Over the past 30 years, Kyrgyzstan has had few legitimate transfers of power. The country's first president, Askar Akayev, was ousted in 2005 following similar protests. He was replaced by Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was ousted during a coup in 2010. The interim president, Roza Otunbayeva, held office for just one year before transferring power to the elected president, Atambayev, who passed the post of the president in 2017 to Jeenbekov.

It also bears a likeness to some other areas in Russia’s all-important periphery – namely, Belarus and Nagorno-Karabakh. And though Kyrgyzstan’s is still an exclusively internal affair, the timing raises questions with regard to Bishkek’s relationship with Moscow.

To be clear, that relationship has been largely cooperative. Russia has always wanted to at least preserve its influence in Kyrgyzstan, which, despite its size and lack of wealth, occupies an area that gives Russia strategic depth. Hence why Russia remains one of the key partners in the economy and maintains an important military base in the country. Bishkek has, of course, benefited from Russian largesse, so it has had little reason to abandon Moscow for China (which is interested in its mining operations), the United States or the European Union.

Even so, the Kremlin has expressed concern over what it has called the “mess and chaos” in the country. But it won’t be easy to fix. The mess and chaos are rooted in historical divisions between the north and the south, which are practically completely isolated from each other by mountainous terrain. (This has also left the country relatively weak and vulnerable.) There are no modern highways between the capital and the main regional urban centers; the roads run mainly along the periphery of the country or make up its borders. The south and north of the country are connected by only one transport road from Osh to Bishkek. This terrain makes it very difficult to create a single economic space and accelerate the country's development without significant investments and modern technologies, which Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have.
 
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There are also notable economic disparities between the north and south. The north borders Kazakhstan and so has received more active development of industrialization and infrastructure than the south, which borders the far poorer and lesser developed areas of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China. It’s a vestige of World War II, when factories and scientific facilities and their attendant workers were relocated from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus to northern Kyrgyzstan. The south remained traditionally agrarian, with comparatively weak social infrastructure and insufficient education, medicine, transportation and engineering but with large labor pools.
 
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On top of these divisions is a society dominated by clans. Kyrgyz citizens transpose a long-standing tradition of tribal affiliation to higher levels of government through the appointment (of family or clan member) to key positions of state. Clans' influence can extend to the prosecutor's office, law enforcement agencies, the Security Council, the media, the banking sector and so on, with each trying to get as much of the pie as it can.

The competition among clans grew more intense after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when an unprecedented surge of nationalism combined with an economic crisis and a transformation of power. Kyrgyzstan’s clans are far too complicated to outline here, but suffice it to say that very broadly speaking, northern clans are considered more progressive, while the southern clans are more conservative, more Islamized and more sympathetic toward separatism. Northern clans are also generally more “Russian” than their southern counterparts, which maintain Uzbek cultural influences. (The current unrest can be seen at least partially in this light. President Jeenbekov is a southerner, while former President Atambayev is a northerner.) These divisions are so stark that when the Soviet Union’s satellites gained independence, there was a real chance what we now call Kyrgyzstan would be broken into two states.

Much to Russia’s chagrin, Kyrgyzstan’s divisions are a cause and a consequence of regional competition. To the north, Kazakhstan is keenly interested in protecting the rights of Kazakhs with property, especially economic infrastructure interests, in Kyrgyzstan. In recent years, Kazakh companies have invested more than $1 billion in the Kyrgyz economy, and several Kazakh businessmen hold large stakes in everything from mining to telecommunications. Uzbekistan, meanwhile, naturally is interested in protecting the rights of ethnic Uzbeks and in ensuring the security of the Fergana Valley. Increased immigration from Uzbekistan has resulted in roughly 14 percent of the Kyrgyz population being ethnically Uzbek. The environment is primed to become a power struggle between Kyrgyzstan’s more powerful neighbors.

Russia would prefer to have a friendly, stable and pro-Russia government in Bishkek rather than have to balance between countries. But just as important, Moscow is worried that other countries – namely, China – could exploit the situation to their benefit. China has already become one of the country's key trading partners; almost 40 percent of all direct investments in Kyrgyzstan come from China. The trade turnover between the countries has almost doubled over the past five years.

Cooperation goes far beyond trade. Various Kyrgyz officials took out loans in China for infrastructure development, mostly for the construction of roads and the repair of a combined heat and power plant. Yet, many Kyrgyz citizens are unhappy with the way Chinese business is being conducted and its consequences for the environment. Anti-China protests pop up every so often, including last year, when an incident between local residents and foreign workers at the Zhong Ji Mining Solton-Sary gold mine left about 50 people injured. (Bishkek suspended the company’s operations.) Kyrgyzstan is also heavily indebted to China, leading Beijing to include it in the list of "financially vulnerable" states. This means that there is a possibility that the largest creditor, China, will dictate the terms, but the Kyrgyz government does not have a clear plan to pay off its debts. Many in Kyrgyzstan therefore worry that the state will have to pay with land, as happened in 1999.

But that’s not even the most immediate of Kyrgyzstan’s economic issues. The country was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, with its economy contracting more than any other member of the Eurasian Economic Union. This is a problem for Kyrgyzstan, of course, but since the instability – or potential partition – could upset the balance of power in Central Asia, it’s a problem for Russia too. Russia won’t get involved so long as the clans in Bishkek remain allies with Moscow.

Crafty_Dog

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Stratfor: Post Soviet and Neo Ottoman interests collide
« Reply #155 on: October 29, 2020, 06:18:27 PM »
The Southern Caucasus: Where Post-Soviet and Neo-Ottoman Interests Collide
Sim Tack
Sim Tack
Senior Global Analyst , Stratfor
8 MINS READOct 29, 2020 | 21:00 GMT
The Caucasus Mountains on Oct. 9, 2020.

The Caucasus Mountains on Oct. 9, 2020.
(KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images)
Highlights

As fighting rages between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, a much higher level competition for regional influence in the Southern Caucasus is taking place. The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, which has its own distinct origins, is just a piece of the broader geopolitical competition between Russia and Turkey as a more ambitious Turkey challenges the status quo in it and Russia's overlapping peripheries. Conflict in Nargorno-Karabakh will eventually subside amid renewed negotiations that will have major implications for Russian and Turkish influence in the broader region....

As fighting rages between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, a much higher level competition for regional influence in the Southern Caucasus is taking place. The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, which has its own distinct origins, is just a piece of the broader geopolitical competition between Russia and Turkey as a more ambitious Turkey challenges the status quo in it and Russia's overlapping peripheries.


The Southern Caucasus is a highly complex environment for such competition given its numerous peoples and rivalries. This dynamic has led Russia to approach the crisis cautiously, with Moscow's role centered on attempts to mediate between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But as long as Azerbaijan, enjoying Turkish military support, sees opportunities for battlefield gains, mediation is unlikely to prove fruitful. Eventually, the conflict will produce renewed negotiations that will shape the fate not only of Nagorno-Karabakh, but that will determine the balance between Russian and Turkish influence in the Southern Caucasus.
Russia's Struggles in the Caucasus, Turkey's Opportunities

Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has struggled to maintain dominance and stability on both sides of the Caucasus Mountains. In the Northern Caucasus, part of the Russian Federation, Moscow has struggled to tamp down separatism and terrorism in Chechnya and Dagestan, particularly in the 1990s. In the Southern Caucasus, it has struggled to maintain friendly ties with former Soviet Republics turned independent states. Complicating its efforts and the regional dynamic, growing Turkish foreign policy ambitions stretching from the Middle East to Europe and now the Caucasus are giving rise to a potentially significant challenge to Russia's long-term strategy for the region.


The linchpin of Russia's strategy in the Southern Caucasus has been the delicate balancing act of keeping good diplomatic and economic ties with Armenia and Azerbaijan. Though the situation is often simplified as Russia siding with Armenia, in reality, Russia balances its military presence and interactions with Armenia through arms sales and trade with Azerbaijan. Avoiding antagonizing Azerbaijan has been key to Russia's efforts not to be locked out of the Southern Caucasus entirely, or with nothing more than an Armenian ally in a hostile environment. Azerbaijan’s divided external allegiances between Russia on the one hand and its ties to Turkey and NATO on the other, however, force Russia to also try to limit Azerbaijan's interactions with Turkey or NATO, adding another layer of complexity to Russian relations with Azerbaijan.


This situation provides opportunities for Turkey. Turkish geopolitical ambitions have been on the rise since the country's failed 2016 coup and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's subsequent consolidation of power. Given the natural competition between Russia and Turkey when both seek to assert influence beyond their borders, standoffs between the two have been seen in Syria, Libya and to a lesser degree even in places like Ukraine and Georgia. An earlier escalation in the fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia in July 2020 likely provided the perfect opportunity for Turkey to ramp up its efforts in the region. Supporting Azerbaijan allows Turkey to challenge the effectiveness of Russia's management strategy in the Southern Caucasus and by extension to challenge the geopolitical status quo along Moscow's vulnerable southern periphery.


Turkey has historically competed with Russia for hegemony in this neighborhood, something on display in the Ottoman Empire's northward efforts in the 17th century and more recently in Turkey's Cold War role as NATO's bulwark along the Soviet Union's southern front. Given Ankara's current swelling geopolitical ambitions, a result of Erdogan's nationalist support base, these two nations are once again butting heads in the Caucasus. Competition with Russia has been central to Turkey's "Neo-Ottoman" ambition of expanding its geopolitical influence and military presence farther into the Middle East and North Africa or even of challenging European powers. Syrian and Libyan adventures by both Russia and Turkey have brought them on the verge of conflict, but apparently have not discouraged Turkey, which is now taking the competition into Russia's backyard.
Nagorno-Karabakh Flares up

Prior to the breakout of hostilities on Sept. 27, several months of intense high-level military contacts, joint military exercises and a sudden surge in Turkish arms sales to Azerbaijan helped Turkey prep Azerbaijan to significantly challenge Russia's ability to maintain its spread between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This Turkish activity followed a July escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which likely provided an opportunity for Turkey to convince the Azerbaijani leadership of Ankara's greater bid to reshape the status quo in the region. Turkey has directly supported the ongoing combat by facilitating the presence of Syrian fighters among Azerbaijani forces, and even by deploying its own F-16 fighter aircraft in Azerbaijan during the opening phases of the conflict.


The competition between Russia and Turkey is unlikely to lead to an all-out conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, and not just because Moscow and Ankara fear a destructive fight. Despite Turkey's clear role in facilitating or even instigating this challenge to Russia's position in the Southern Caucasus, it does not want full-on competition with Russia at this early stage of its geopolitical resurgence. And for each player, an all-out conflict would hurt already-shaky financial situations at home, and could have serious follow-on effects in the other theaters where they are facing off. Turkey has demonstrated its willingness and ability to compete with Russia in measured ways in Syria and Libya, where active deconfliction and cease-fire agreements have prevented major military standoffs.


Triggering a Russian intervention on Armenia's behalf could eventually prove beneficial for Turkey, because Russian involvement could well wreck the Russia-Azerbaijan relationship.

So far, Turkish and Russian forces have not directly faced each other in Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey and Azerbaijan likely are working to keep this the case, since such a standoff would almost certainly end any Azerbaijani battlefield gains: More Turkish military support that resulted in a Russian deployment would stall the Azerbaijani advance. But for Turkey, triggering a Russian intervention to back Armenia could eventually prove beneficial. This is because Russian involvement on Armenia's behalf could well wreck the Russia-Azerbaijan relationship. Russia recognizes what Turkey also sees, and so has not played a direct military role in the conflict for now.


Faced with the choice between halting Azerbaijani and Turkish military ambitions and sustaining its influence in the Southern Caucasus beyond Armenia, Russia has sought to stop the former and protect the latter via a diplomatic solution to the current fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh. But reaching a negotiated outcome will be difficult, especially while Azerbaijan sees opportunities for more territorial gains. Russia and other international mediators such as the United States and France, which together head the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Minsk Group that leads Nagorno-Karabakh mediation efforts, has managed to organize separated mediation sessions up to the foreign ministerial level. Direct talks between the two belligerents, however, have not happened amid the intense fighting.
Broader Russian Goals

Countries like Georgia and Iran have played a secondary yet critical role in the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis, further limiting Russia's desire for an escalation there. Both countries have served as logistical connections to the different actors in the conflict, with Georgia providing a direct air connection between Turkey and Azerbaijan and Iran providing a connection between Russia and Armenia. Though Georgia and Russia have long had an antagonistic relationship given Russia's support for the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia does not want the relationship to worsen. A greater Russian military presence in Armenia certainly would alarm Georgia, potentially triggering closer cooperation between Turkey and Georgia. As for Iran, Moscow has enjoyed fairly positive ties with Tehran, which continues to allow deliveries of Russian arms to Armenia. The Iranian people, however, have less clear-cut views about the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with protests in support of the latter having erupted across Iran during the current crisis.


Continued fighting or escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh will strain Iranian cooperation with Russia, reinforcing Russia's imperative to stabilize the conflict in the Southern Caucasus.


Though the Turkish challenge in the Southern Caucasus may have initially had Russia on the back foot, the outcome of the current crisis could still see Russia maintain or even strengthen its position in the Southern Caucasus. If a mediated settlement is indeed reached, the shape and form of this agreement will define the potential for future escalations and further challenges to Russia's role in the region. Russia and OSCE, for example, have broached the idea of a Russian peacekeeping force separating Armenian and Azerbaijani forces. Azerbaijan could see the prospect of such a deployment as erecting a permanent block against ejecting Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia will still try to persuade Azerbaijan to accept one, perhaps in exchange for a number of complex guarantees and procedures. If it can pull off such a deal, and if it lasts, Russia would have achieved its goal of keeping its relationship with Azerbaijan — and might become an even more important broker in the Southern Caucasus despite Turkish efforts to block it.

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GPF: In Central Asia a timely opportunity for Russia
« Reply #157 on: January 11, 2021, 05:46:15 AM »
January 11, 2021
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In Central Asia, a Timely Opportunity for Russia

With many of its other buffers secured, Moscow will turn its attention to the east.
By: Ekaterina Zolotova

In our 2021 annual forecast, we noted that this year, like many years before it, Russia would try to add to its strategic depth by reconstructing its near abroad, particularly Central Asia. Having secured its southern borders by deploying peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh and making sure that the current government in Belarus will stay close to the Kremlin, Russia sees the need to create a buffer in the east, where former Soviet states have, since the fall of the Soviet Union, claimed statehood, nationality and neutrality.

Central Asia has an important strategic position. The historic Silk Road connecting East and West passes through the territory of modern Central Asian states, and the roads leading from Europe and the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region intersect there. Since the early 1990s, the region has served as a barrier to less densely populated and less protected Russian lands from external threats, including China's rapid development and the spread of terrorism from Afghanistan. The economic potential of Central Asia, with its natural resources, significant gold and foreign exchange reserves, a growing population and potentially healthy consumer base, is important too. This could prove handy for Russia as it looks for new markets that can buy non-oil exports.

A Forgotten Buffer

Imperial Russia’s “claims” to Central Asia date back to the 19th century, when it fortified the region against the expansion of the British Empire, but it didn’t really bring it to heel until the Soviet era. Moscow deepened its ties to the fledgling republics through massive financial commitments, by constructing factories and by introducing Russian as the official language. Russia also supplied everything the republics’ economies needed.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia embraced Central Asia as a buffer to protect its now-vulnerable borders, but it wasn’t Moscow’s top priority. The main threat to Russia came from the West, so it focused more on countries such as Belarus and Ukraine. And unlike the newly independent countries of Eastern Europe, Central Asian states were so closely tied to Russia that they couldn’t really separate from their former overlord even if they had wanted to.

Eventually, though, as global economies became more advanced and integrated, Central Asian states tried to adopt a more-multifaceted foreign policy to strike a balance between Russia and the rest of the world. They needed economic support that they believed Russia alone could not provide.

At the time, the Kremlin didn’t interfere too much; it understood that these states were too weak and immature to chart their own course. Indeed, years under Russian and Soviet governance left a lasting impact on these countries' political systems and economies, which maintained strong centralized governments well after the fall of the union, so they were unattractive to Western businesses. Central Asian states thus continued to orient themselves toward Russia, which continued to guarantee security to new countries. The Kremlin was confident that it had the means to manipulate them even more when the time came.

Even so, Central Asian states have had a taste of freedom, and their governments have begun to move away from Russia accordingly. Soviet identity is disappearing, and more politicians are coming to power independently of Russian influence. They are becoming more open to trade and investment and have joined more international organizations. More countries, including China, the U.S. and Turkey, are thus more willing to engage Central Asia, keeping a natural check on Russian influence. (It’s worth noting, however, that Russia still has the advantage here, since, for example, Russian loans are always on more favorable terms. There’s also less risk to do business with Russia, which usually doesn’t draw the kinds of negative reactions, say, Chinese companies do.)

Even so, each country has its reasons for cooperating or opposing Russia. Kazakhstan – the largest country in Central Asia and, considering the size of its shared border, likely the most important country to Russia – has changed dramatically. In the 1950s and 1960s, for example, Kazakhs were a minority, accounting for just 30 percent of the population. They now account for nearly 70 percent. Kazakhs are increasingly nationalist and increasingly skeptical of Russian behavior in its borders.

In Uzbekistan, the country’s president is implementing new reforms to make Uzbekistan more attractive for foreign investments. It is categorically neutral, much to the chagrin of Russia, and has proved difficult for Moscow to absorb into its Eurasian Economic Union. Russia is trying to prove that entry into the EAEU will give Uzbek producers equal access to other EAEU markets (primarily Russia and Kazakhstan), equal conditions for migrant laborers, and access to Russian investment resources and technologies. In this context, Uzbekistan, which needs additional markets, is having a hard time acting decisively.

Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are mired in their own problems, and need too many resources that Russia cannot provide. Tajikistan lacks a foundation for economic restoration and is buckling more and more under the weight of its debt. It has asked investor countries to postpone its debt payments (and interest on them) until mid-2021; doing so would allow it to divert funds to the social sector, including health care, to combat COVID-19. Turkmenistan’s economy is in worse shape than usual, with a fair amount of food shortages to boot.

Acting Quickly

Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic has directly or indirectly affected all the republics of Central Asia. Social restrictions have hurt the economy, especially because of reduced remittances of migrant workers. This has presented an opportunity to Russia, which will try to win Central Asia over by economic rather than military means. The new approach reflects Russia’s long-term need to diversify its economy and aligns with Central Asia’s desire to modernize and grow its economies too. Moscow sees these interests as complementary and so has already begun to actively offer cooperation. For example, Moscow announced that it is ready to expand cooperation with Uzbekistan in power generation, to create joint oil and gas projects worth more than $75 million, and to coordinate production of a COVID-19 vaccine with Kazakhstan .

Helping Russia in this regard is the competition between China and the U.S. Central Asian economies that rely on both will have a hard time choosing between the two, lest they be subject to reprisals from either. That leaves Russia to pick up the pieces.

This all works so long as Central Asia is more or less stable. And the stability of the region will depend at least in part on Afghanistan. And Russia is the first country that will be happy to provide military support if the countries ask for help, as it can increase Moscow’s position in the region. Rumors persist that some in the Taliban intend to start hostilities in Tajikistan. In December, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow was concerned about the continuing degradation of the situation in Afghanistan. Islamic State militants are concentrating in the north of the country for expansion into Central Asia. Central Asia, already rife with ethno-religious tension and economic problems, could be fertile ground for continued violence.

Russia wants to be the major power in Central Asia. It’s well positioned to be just that, but it needs regional states not to rush from one strong ally – such as China and the U.S. – to another. It also needs to keep them from being too nationalist or economically competitive.

These countries are now more vulnerable than ever, but as they gradually recover, they will soon begin to define their interests more clearly – interests that may or may not align with Russia’s. Russia understands it must act quickly if it wants to balance the growing influence of the West and China, maintain its military presence and strengthen its economic influence.


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GPF: Georgia
« Reply #158 on: January 22, 2021, 05:55:53 AM »
Brief: Everyone Wants a Piece of Georgia
Russia reasserted control over Armenia and Azerbaijan last year, but Georgia is still in play.
By: Geopolitical Futures

Background: Russia consolidated its dominance in the South Caucasus late last year when it mediated between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the war over Nagorno-Karabakh and sent peacekeepers to enforce the ensuing peace. Still, Russia’s southern flank remains vulnerable to foreign influence from competing powers, including Turkey, Iran and the United States.

What Happened: U.S. President Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said Wednesday that NATO’s door is always open to Georgia if it meets membership requirements. A few days earlier, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg underscored that Russia cannot stop Georgia from joining the organization if it so wishes. Separately, Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili is in Brussels until Saturday for meetings with European Council President Charles Michel and EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell. The EU officials expressed their support for Georgia’s territorial integrity. And this came after the European Court of Human Rights (which is not affiliated with the European Union) released a ruling Thursday that the Russian government is responsible for violations of Georgian citizens’ rights in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, since those regions are under Russian control. The Georgian government praised the ruling, though the Kremlin pointed out that the court said some of the claims were unfounded. Finally, there’s Turkey, which was also a significant player in backing Azerbaijan in the recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. On Monday, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia met with Turkey’s ambassador to discuss the bilateral strategic partnership and regional developments.

Bottom Line: Russia’s reassertion of dominance over Armenia and Azerbaijan raises questions about Georgia’s place in the South Caucasus. Moscow already controls the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and it would like to expand its reach to other parts of Georgia. Tbilisi, however, wants to keep its options open. With NATO and the U.S. reaching out, Russia will need to act sooner rather than later if it wants to ensure Georgia doesn’t end up closer to the bloc.

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GPF: Georgia
« Reply #159 on: March 01, 2021, 04:56:19 AM »
March 1, 2021
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In Georgia, the Opportunity That Wasn’t
Russia isn’t all that interested in intervening in the embattled country.
By: Ekaterina Zolotova

Pressure is building in Georgia, where anti-government protests have reached a fever pitch and the recent detention of the United National Movement party's leader in particular has invited criticism from the West.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Instability is a hallmark of Georgia and the Caucasus more generally. Destabilization there coupled with dissatisfaction from the West gives Russia the opportunity to bring countries in this vulnerable region further into its orbit. It’s too important as a buffer zone, as a transportation hub and as an energy corridor for Russia (or the West, for that matter) to ignore. Even so, it’s unlikely that anyone will be able to fully capitalize on the current conflict.

Georgia gained its independence after the Soviet Union collapsed, but it immediately succumbed to conflict. In 1991, large-scale clashes broke out in the breakaway region of South Ossetia, and in 1992, armed clashes erupted in Abkhazia. Russia helped negotiate settlements between them, but further efforts were complicated by Moscow's official recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008 (after fighting a five-day war with Georgia) and by Georgia’s efforts to integrate into NATO. Georgia was more broadly unhappy with the extent of Russia's political and economic influence in the country, which was considerable, and though Tbilisi has never been able to become part of the Western bloc, Russo-Georgian relations were about as low as they could get during this period.


(click to enlarge)

For all of Russia’s past meddling, though, it has so far yet to intervene in the current bout of unrest. And the explanation for that is simple: Moscow simply does not see a significant threat from third parties or to its own remaining influence in the country.

For one thing, any country interested in improving its station in Georgia understands that doing so entails serious financial commitments. Georgia boasts massive unemployment, corruption and slow economic growth. It doesn’t have any significant resource deposits and has to compete with other countries as a potential transit hub. Neither the West nor Russia is willing to do that right now, and neither arguably can, given the financial attention each has to pay to righting its own economy. Turkey is another potential benefactor with interests in extending its influence in the Caucasus – one that has allocated $14 million for the restoration of Georgia's Marneuli military airfield, bombed by Russian aircraft in 2008, and for the purchase of military goods from Turkish firms – but it, too, has its financial difficulties and employs a more diversified strategy in the region besides. Turkey’s investments in the Georgian military industry are not big enough to change the balance of power, and in any case Ankara wouldn’t want to do anything that started a direct fight with Russia.

Second, it can be difficult to engage with a government such as the one in Tbilisi that clearly doesn’t have a secure hold on power. The two primary belligerents are the ruling Georgian Dream party and the United National Movement, which was in power during the Russo-Georgian War. But it’s not a black and white issue. Both parties agree on a number of issues, including the restoration of territorial integrity, the introduction of Western values and integration into the European Union and NATO. The current standoff, then, is likely less a struggle between ideas and more a competition between leaders. It’s why, for example, the UNM and other opposition parties rejected the results of the 2020 legislative elections (in which the Georgian Dream party won 17 single-mandate constituencies) and boycotted the legislature altogether. Both have significant support and financial resources, and each has some leverage over the other, so there is little reason to think they will soon find a compromise and stop fighting for power.

Third, there is practically no observable shift in the balance of power. Though the current Georgian administration refused to cooperate with Russia, Tbilisi is no closer to “joining” the West now than it was years ago. Moreover, Georgia can’t afford to isolate itself from Russia economically. (Russia is Georgia’s second-largest trade partner, accounting for 13.2 percent of exports and 10.8 percent of imports.) Indeed, Moscow is a major market for Georgian wine and fruit, while the European Union, which technically has a free trade agreement with Georgia, is not. There is also a substantial Georgian diaspora in Russia that remits an estimated $400 million to Georgia every year.

Russo-Georgian Trade
(click to enlarge)

In fact, the only ties between the two to improve since they cratered in the mid-2000s are economic ones. The embargo on goods was lifted after the UNM lost in the 2012 parliamentary elections. Russia has lifted almost all restrictions on Georgian imports and has restored flights. Improved political relations would depend on the resolution of the Abkhazia and South Ossetia conflicts – historically fraught issues with potentially dire consequences that no one can afford.

As for the West, bilateral ties between Georgia and the United States are unusually good right now, and although Washington talks a lot about supporting Georgia's territorial claims, that’s about all it does. In fact, Tbilisi is unhappy with the Biden administration, which promised to be tough on Russia but has since extended the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Moscow understands that the U.S. is in no hurry to incorporate Georgia in NATO because it’s more convenient for Washington to cooperate with the South Caucasus states directly than through NATO. The European Union values Georgia as an alternative supply route for energy resources that would ease its dependence on Russia, but now Brussels is too busy with its own problems – i.e. Brexit and post-pandemic economic recovery – to do much about it.

At this point, both Russia and the West are passive observers, happy to let the situation in Georgia play out on its own, assuming it doesn’t spread beyond the country’s borders. What seems like an opportunity for Russia isn’t. It has too much to deal with, and it has little interest in needlessly running afoul of the West.

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WSJ: Central Asia is the hole in Biden's China Strategy
« Reply #160 on: March 17, 2021, 12:18:47 PM »
The Hole in Biden’s China Strategy: Central Asia
Both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan could help the U.S. combat Beijing and advance human rights.
By Kamran Bokhari
March 16, 2021 6:40 pm ET


The brewing competition between the U.S. and China is the defining conflict of the 21st century. The White House’s recent Interim National Security Strategic Guidance Document, crafted to convey President Biden’s vision for how America will engage with the world, is all about the U.S. vs. China. Yet it fails to mention the region where America has its lightest footprint on the planet: Central Asia.

China is building a land bridge to Europe and the Middle East that runs through Central Asia. The new administration will have to account for the region in its strategic thinking if it hopes to re-engage the world after four years of President Trump’s “America First” policy.

The low priority that Mr. Biden’s team assigns to Central Asia is a legacy of successive administrations dating to the 1991 implosion of the Soviet Union. The U.S. has since engaged Central Asia, but only in a tactical or transactional manner. Take the 2015 establishment of the C5+1. This U.S.-run diplomatic forum has continued to be the channel through which Washington distributes aid to and organizes meetings between the five Central Asian states: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. But it hasn’t brought Washington anywhere close to being able to compete with Beijing and Moscow in the region.

Thirty years since the U.S. gained access to Central Asia, long tucked away in the Kremlin’s shadow, it is time to develop a broader strategy for the region—one that takes into consideration the rapidly evolving geopolitics in Eurasia, as Beijing seeks to fill the vacuum created by Russia’s receding influence.


Three of the region’s five nations have demonstrated significant progress in their transition from post-Soviet statehood. Kyrgyzstan has seen three waves of public unrest in its struggle for a more representative government, starting with the 2005 Tulip revolution, which resulted in the overthrow of the country’s Soviet-era leader. Five years after, Kyrgyzstan experienced a second uprising, which led to the establishment of a parliamentary system. Its most recent bout of mass agitation, which broke out last year, resulted in a fresh election in which voters overwhelmingly opted for a presidential form of government.


Uzbekistan is also on an impressive path to reform. Since the current president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, came to power following Soviet-era strongman Islam Karimov’s death in 2016, the once-isolated country is opening its borders to foreign investment and Western ideas.

Tajikistan and Turkmenistan show much less promise, having been locked into authoritarian regimes since 1991. Natural-gas heavyweight Turkmenistan seems content with limiting its relations to Russia, Iran and China, the last of which purchases upward of 30 billion cubic feet of piped gas a year—roughly one-third of its total gas imports.

But the biggest opportunity for the U.S. may lie in Kazakhstan, where Nursultan Nazarbayev voluntarily stepped down in 2019 after nearly 29 years as part of a planned political transition.

As Central Asia’s largest state by landmass and economic output, Kazakhstan is the natural leader of the region. Under its new president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, it has the potential to be a real strategic partner to America. Already pushing back against both Moscow and Beijing—on issues such as Russian attempts to retain regional influence and aggressive Chinese investments—Kazakhstan can benefit immensely from enhanced engagement with the U.S. A strong Kazakhstan making progress on political reform and economic development can be a model to the region. It may also be a poster child in America’s campaign to encourage secular governance in majority-Muslim countries, to include the rights of women and minorities, as well as best environmental practices.

Kazakhstan may welcome the U.S. support on its path toward democratic reform. It is therefore all the more important that Washington work toward a robust engagement on multiple levels beyond resisting China. The Kazakhs have demonstrated leadership on international diplomacy by hosting several rounds of Syrian peace talks and playing host to talks on Afghanistan and Iran. Kazakhstan can help Washington in shaping a post-U.S. Afghanistan, countering Iran’s nuclear ambition, and containing Turkey as it eyes the trans-Caspian region—where the Caucuses meet Central Asia.

To accomplish this, the Biden administration will have to devote real attention to Central Asia. For starters, the Biden-Harris team should appoint a special envoy to the region. The White House can and should use Kazakhstan’s tradition of hosting multilateral diplomacy and Uzbekistan’s newly opened economy, to pursue diplomatic and economic interests across Eurasia. America’s foreign policy is at a historic moment as Beijing looms. Central Asia could be the key to help revive U.S. leadership in the world.

Mr. Bokhari is director of analytical development at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy and a national-security and foreign-policy specialist at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute.

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GPF: Russia's New Strategy for Central Asia
« Reply #161 on: May 05, 2021, 06:30:55 AM »

    
Russia’s New Strategy for Central Asia
In the face of growing competition and diminished might, Moscow is putting influence before dominance.
By: Ekaterina Zolotova

While Russia was grabbing attention with its buildup and withdrawal of military forces along its western border with Ukraine, it was making a different, diplomatic advance in another buffer region: Central Asia. On April 30, leaders from the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) – Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia, as well as observer states – gathered in Kazan, Russia. A few days before the meeting, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu traveled to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which is an observer member of the EAEU. Of course, Russian cooperation with the countries of Central Asia is nothing new. But the meetings were emblematic of a shift in Russian strategy away from the ad hoc approach of past decades and toward something more coherent. Facing rising competition for regional influence, and with diminished political and economic capital to impose its will, Moscow is trying to build up the EAEU and lead by subtler means.

Haphazard Strategy

The Soviet Union, by expanding Moscow’s borders, gave Russia immense security. This security was lost when the USSR collapsed. Once Russia stabilized itself, it devoted more attention to its western frontier, which harbored the more immediate threats of NATO and EU encroachment. The Central Asian states, meanwhile, remained more closely tied to Russia. In addition, the countries of Central Asia had territorial disputes with one another, which reduced the chances that they would merge into a union capable of resisting Russia.

But Central Asia is still a critical region for Moscow. It forms a buffer separating Russia from China and the rest of Asia. Especially important is Kazakhstan, which has no natural barriers with Russia, meaning instability in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia can easily spread into Russia itself. It is also important for Moscow to protect its significant industrial potential concentrated along the Kazakh border, as well as communications linking the central part of Russia with Siberia and the Far East, which run either near or through Kazakhstan. Finally, Central Asia has the potential to become one of the most actively developing regions in the world for the production and transportation of oil and coal, attracting the attention of outside players like the United States, Iran, Turkey and China.


(click to enlarge)

Yet, until the 2020s, Russia had no coherent strategy for Central Asia. Instead, its approach often looked chaotic and uncoordinated. In general, it has tried to maintain its influence by distributing loans and strengthening its military presence. In the first decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia directed economic assistance and mostly unprofitable investment to the region – roughly $20 billion worth, about half of which (47 percent) went to the energy sector, with another 22 percent going to nonferrous metallurgy and 15 percent to telecommunications. Russia also continued to act as the security guarantor of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan within the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and built Russian military bases and facilities in the region.

This policy often met with criticism from the Central Asian countries, which had just gained their independence and did not want to auction it off in exchange for Russian loans. It was also unpopular with many Russians, who were unhappy not only with the large number of Central Asian immigrants but also with the government’s allocation of support to the republics rather than Russia’s own sluggish economy.

New Direction

Almost 30 years later, the Kremlin recognizes the need for a more thoughtful and balanced policy. The countries of Central Asia are no longer lost pieces of the Soviet Union but fully independent states with their own foreign relations and no interest in giving up their sovereignty. There are several reasons for Russia’s change of heart.

First, there’s rising competition: Moscow is no longer Central Asia’s only important trading partner and creditor. Second, Russia is approaching or has reached the limits of its western strategy and is up against increased political pressure on that front. Over the past year, Russia has significantly bolstered its relations with Belarus, and its enormous military drills in and around Crimea last month demonstrated that Kyiv and Moscow understand their own limits and what to expect from each other. In the east, however, Russia still needs to develop its strategic depth and further open trading markets. Third, the Kremlin accepted that its previous policy toward Central Asia was just not very effective and actually ignored the territorial disputes in the region, which today are at risk of flaring up.
Under its old policy, Russia had no mechanism for resolving potential military conflicts – like last week’s clashes between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan – since Russian military involvement was impossible because Moscow prefers to maintain equally good relations with all parties. Also, the introduction of Russian peacekeepers in the region would likely cause a negative reaction from the West.

Share of Central Asian Trade, 2019
(click to enlarge)

Other factors likely played a role as well. For example, the pandemic highlighted all manner of existing and potential dangers: economic inequality, massive hidden unemployment, reduced remittances due to social distancing measures, the risk of economic crisis and the ineffectiveness of political and administrative systems.
Social and economic unrest could be a boon for the recruitment efforts of local terrorist groups. Also, the Biden administration returned to the so-called C5+1 (the five republics of Central Asia plus the U.S.) and began discussing the possibility of setting up military bases after the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan. Turkey’s president, meanwhile, suggested formally upgrading the Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States. Finally, the volatility of oil prices and the modest growth of the Russian economy were threatening Russia's investment approach to the region.

Influence Over Control

The details of the new Russian approach still need to be worked out, but it will run through the Eurasian Economic Union, which is not just an economic bloc but also a political forum. Russia can no longer hope to dominate the region – at least not at a price it’s willing to pay. The Kremlin’s future influence will instead be based on psychological warfare and inducements, not direct intervention. To that end, it is important for Russia to show that cooperation with it or with Russian-led projects is a mutually beneficial process, and that its partners will not lose their independence but rather gain influence. The recent Tajik-Kyrgyz conflict is a vivid example of Russia using the EAEU as a platform to resolve a conflict instead of deploying its own peacekeepers or negotiating separately with both sides.

Eurasian Economic Union and Associated Nations
(click to enlarge)

The military aspect is also changing. Moscow no longer seeks to build up Russian forces in Central Asia, but instead prefers to create a platform for burden-sharing and joint cooperation in which every participating country feels that it is an important and full-fledged member. For example, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu initiated the formation of an anti-Taliban front during his last visit to Uzbekistan. This is supported by the creation of a joint air defense system with Tajikistan and the new strategic partnership with Uzbekistan. The latter headed off an initiative from Washington, which hoped Uzbekistan would serve as a reserve base for countering terrorists in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of Western troops.

If its new strategy works, then Russia will be able to increase its importance in the region at minimal cost. More important, it will do so without triggering a backlash from third countries. China is unlikely to oppose it, since Beijing needs a stable Central Asia to implement its Belt and Road strategy. Moreover, if the countries of Central Asia represent one economic space, then the transportation of goods will encounter fewer bureaucratic obstacles. Iranian ambitions in the region can also be gently controlled by Russia, especially if Russia succeeds in attracting Iran to the EAEU, which could help Tehran circumvent U.S. sanctions. Turkey’s economic ambitions in the region will be forced into the background, and a strong Russian presence will reinforce Russian culture and block pan-Turkism from taking root. Finally, if the EAEU represents a platform for negotiations where countries are not dominated by Russia, then Western countries are also unlikely to find a reason to threaten the project with sanctions.

But such a strategy means that Russia will have to settle for increased influence rather than total control and make a number of concessions. Already Moscow has experienced the consequences of the introduction of consensus in the EAEU, when Armenia opposed Azerbaijan’s participation in a meeting of the bloc’s intergovernmental council, against Russia’s wishes. The Kremlin will have to get used to moving more slowly and not always getting its way. The only questions are whether the Kremlin will have the patience and time to implement its new strategy and, more important, whether the Central Asian countries will trust Moscow’s peaceful intentions.

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GPF: China growing role in Central Asia
« Reply #162 on: May 20, 2021, 12:44:31 PM »

    
Brief: China’s Growing Role in Central Asia
China’s success raises questions about Russian influence in the region.
By: Geopolitical Futures

Background: Over a relatively short period, China has strengthened its position in Central Asia, becoming a key trading partner and investor in what is historically Russia’s sphere of influence. China’s success raises questions about Russian influence in the region.

What Happened: Accumulated Chinese investment in Tajikistan surpassed $3.15 billion at the end of 2020, which is 35.5 percent of the total volume of foreign investment in the country and nearly double Russia’s investment ($1.6 billion), the Tajik state investment committee said. Significant inflows of Chinese investment to Tajikistan really began only about a decade ago. Meanwhile, the Kyrgyz government turned to China to ask for help restoring infrastructure and social facilities in its southwestern Batken region.

On May 12, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with the foreign ministers of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan at the second 5+1 summit, where he called for the countries to find new avenues for regional cooperation. On the same day, Kyrgyzstan’s Foreign Ministry announced that China was offering it a $54 million grant, plus 150,000 free COVID-19 vaccine doses and payment deferrals on Kyrgyz debt to China.

Bottom Line: After a lull last year, China is again emphasizing relations with Central Asia. This may worry Russia, which is in the midst of its own campaign to woo Central Asia but which can’t match China’s ability to provide financial assistance. Moscow may instead try to promote the advantages of membership in its regional integration project, the Eurasian Economic Union, while trying to avoid a direct confrontation with Beijing.

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Walter Russel Mead: Landmines abound in the Caucuses
« Reply #163 on: June 22, 2021, 02:01:18 AM »
Land Mines for U.S. Abound in the Caucuses
Azerbaijan is rich with diplomatic possibilities; Armenia complicates matters.

By Walter Russell Mead
June 21, 2021



Azerbaijan released 15 Armenian prisoners of war on Saturday in exchange for the locations of 97,000 Armenian land mines on territory Azerbaijan recaptured in last fall’s Nagorno-Karabakh war. That was a welcome sign that American diplomacy in the Caucasus is alive and well. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s victory in snap elections Monday suggests that the window for diplomacy remains open. But the State Department will have to step carefully. There are plenty of geopolitical land mines left, and U.S. diplomats—who helped arrange the exchange agreement—could set off career-ending explosions if they make a false move.

The Caucasus is one of those complicated faraway but strategically vital regions that Americans often overlook. It’s the only exit oil and gas can take from Central Asia to the West without passing through Russian or Iranian territory. Since the former Soviet republics of the southern Caucasus declared their independence in 1990, there have been numerous conflicts in Georgia, two in Russia’s restive Chechen region, and two between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is largely populated by ethnic Armenians but internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.

Caucasian conflicts can have an outsize impact on world order. In 1999 the second Chechen war helped Vladimir Putin assume firm control of the Russian Federation. His 2008 invasion of Georgia marked the beginning of a Russian challenge to the post-Cold War international order. The recent Nagorno-Karabakh war, in which Azerbaijani forces equipped with Turkish and Israeli drones imposed a stinging setback on Armenia’s Russian-supplied army, also marks a shift in world politics as high-tech drone warfare becomes a factor in small-power conflicts.


The problem for U.S. political types engaged in Caucasus policy is that American values and American interests can pull Washington in different directions. U.S. connections with Armenia are strong and deep. American missionaries and educators were closely involved with Armenian communities across the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, and some of the most searing and heart-rending accounts of the Armenian genocide come from American missionaries who saw friends and colleagues slaughtered in 1915.

The large Armenian diaspora community in the U.S. keeps the memory alive, and since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenian-Americans have actively assisted and advocated for their struggling homeland. Practically speaking, Washington cannot conduct a Caucasus policy that ignores the concerns of Armenian-Americans and their Christian allies.

At the same time, Azerbaijan is too important to ignore. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline carries a million barrels of oil a day to Europe and Israel. With last January’s agreement between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan on the joint exploitation of the Dostluq oil-and-gas field in the Caspian, the pipeline’s supply and importance has grown. Azerbaijan is also the only country that borders both Russia and Iran, and a predominantly Shiite country that enjoys close and cordial relations with Israel. The majority of ethnic Azeris live in modern Iran, and the close cultural and economic ties between Iranian and Azerbaijani Azeris are of critical importance for Western powers seeking information about Iran’s nuclear program and other sensitive topics.

Azerbaijani officials speak openly of their desire for closer relations with the West. Armenia meanwhile enjoys friendly back-and-forths with both Moscow and Tehran. During the Nagorno-Karabakh war, Russian supplies for Armenia were shipped through Iran—setting off demonstrations by Iranian Azeris that alarmed authorities in Tehran. Since the conflict last fall, the Kremlin has tightened its grip on Armenia. As has often happened when Christian Armenians have cried out for protection in the past, Moscow alone has answered their calls. Russian peacekeepers and threats are the only forces holding Azerbaijan back from completing its reconquest of Karabakh.


If there were no Armeniaian-Azberbaijani conflict, Azerbaijan, with three times Armenia’s population and 3.5 times its gross domestic product, would be the center of U.S. Caucasus policy—even if concerns about human rights and corruption ruffled relations from time to time. (Freedom House rates Azerbaijan as “not free,” and Transparency International rates it 129 among 180 countries for perceived corruption.) As the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan and draws down forces across the Middle East, it needs local allies to protect its interests. Azerbaijan is high on the very short list of countries in the region both willing and able to help. Building a relationship with Azerbaijan without alienating Armenians is difficult, but Washington has a long history of managing incompatible allies. South Korea and Japan, Israel and Saudi Arabia: American diplomats have specialized in herding cats since World War II.

Last week’s prisoner release offered a welcome opportunity to work with both countries. One hopes the Biden administration can build on this success to make the Caucasus more peaceful and less vulnerable to Russia.

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Caucuses
« Reply #164 on: June 22, 2021, 06:09:25 PM »
June 22, 2021
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Brief: Crime Surge in the North Caucasus
The region was already one of Russia's least stable.
By: Geopolitical Futures

Background: The North Caucasus region, with its low level of socio-economic development and separatist undercurrents, is one of Russia’s most unstable. It’s also Russia’s gateway to the South Caucasus and the Middle East – or, alternatively, a path for Russia’s enemies into the Russian heartland. It’s therefore important for Moscow not only to control the region, but also to maintain a semblance of security.

What Happened: Two North Caucasian republics, Chechnya and Ingushetia, saw massive increases in registered crimes in the first five months of 2021. In Chechnya, crime rose by 41.2 percent, and in Ingushetia it jumped 27.5 percent. The top 10 includes other North Caucasus regions like Dagestan and North Ossetia. Earlier this month, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin admitted that public programs intended to develop the North Caucasus had failed.

Chechnya & Ingushetia
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Bottom Line: The Kremlin is focusing more on the North Caucasus, particularly ahead of legislative elections in September. The spike in crime and poor performance of development measures could push the Kremlin to overhaul its plans and create a new strategy to firm up its grip on the region.

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GPF: Will new order survive in the South Caucuses?
« Reply #165 on: July 07, 2021, 08:24:07 AM »
July 7, 2021
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A New Order in the South Caucasus
It’s not clear that the new regional balance can survive its own contradictions.
By: Ridvan Bari Urcosta

When Armenia and Azerbaijan started fighting late last year, it looked like another episode in their interminable conflict. But beneath the surface, three important things happened: First, Turkey gained a seat at the table. Second, Russia and Turkey blocked Western (i.e., American and French) participation in the diplomatic settlement. And third, they laid the groundwork for an alternative regional order that includes the three South Caucasus countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – as well as Russia, Turkey and Iran. Whether this new order can survive Turkey’s rise and its own inherent contradictions is a critical question for the South Caucasus and relations between the three major powers.

The Platform of Six

In December 2020, right after the signing in November of the Russia-brokered cease-fire between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposed the establishment of a six-party grouping to end hostilities in the region and avert another war. Like most regional frameworks, the so-called Platform of Six faces several challenges. Most obviously, there’s the rivalry between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which at this point have bookended years of low-level fighting with two wars since the late 1980s. Then there’s Armenia, which has been at odds with Turkey for more than a century due to the 1915 mass killing of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire. Finally, there’s the Russo-Georgian issue. A U.S. partner with ambitions to join NATO, Tbilisi is wary of Moscow, which invaded Georgia in 2008 and continues to occupy parts of the country.

The Platform of Six, Shusha Declaration
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In a sign of just how precarious the new arrangement could be, on June 15 Azerbaijan and Turkey signed the Shusha Declaration, which established the two countries as strategic allies. The agreement stipulates that, in the event of an attack by a third country, the two will take joint initiatives to address the threat and provide each other with the necessary aid and military cooperation. It also left open the possibility of Ankara establishing a military base in the Azerbaijani city of Shusha, despite Moscow’s strict prohibition of such a base. (Russia agreed only to let Turkey operate with it a joint center to monitor the Armenian-Azerbaijani cease-fire.) Notably, the Shusha Declaration also contains a pledge to support pan-Turkish collaboration and to coordinate the work of Azeri and Turkish diasporas – a particularly unnerving prospect for Russia and Iran, both of which host sizable Azeri populations.

To gauge the feasibility of the new diplomatic model, we need to examine the perspectives of the potential participants.

Turkey

As its power grows, Turkey sees an opportunity to make itself the gatekeeper between Europe and the Greater Middle East and Central Asia. For the past decade, an increasingly neo-Ottoman government in Ankara has spread its influence across the region, with the exception of Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus. Recent Turkish actions in the South Caucasus and Ukraine suggest that may be changing. During last year’s Armenian-Azerbaijani war, very public Turkish military assistance to Azerbaijan’s armed forces proved decisive on the battlefield. Azerbaijan’s victory was also a win for Turkey and highlighted to both sides the benefits of a deeper relationship.

Turkey’s South Caucasus approach has two parts: a strategy of regional cooperation via the Platform of Six plan, and bilateral military and political alliances with strategic partners based on pan-Turkism. Through these endeavors, Ankara hopes to increase its influence in the Caspian Sea and Central Asia, and potentially to create a transport corridor from Turkey through Azerbaijan to Central Asia.

However, a stronger Turkey in the South Caucasus and Central Asia raises the possibility of Ankara challenging Russia’s traditional spheres of influence. This would be unacceptable for Moscow and would seriously undermine Russo-Turkish relations. Washington, on the other hand, would approve. The U.S. has an interest in preventing Iran and Russia from expanding their influence in Central Asia, but it doesn’t want to make any serious commitments of its own. Further, Turkey can increase its bilateral military agreements with Ukraine and Georgia, thereby supporting NATO interests even though these two states are not members of the bloc.

Russia

Russia played a decisive role in containing the Armenian-Azerbaijani war and designing and implementing the subsequent peacekeeping mission. The results largely serve Russian interests. But instead of asserting itself as the sole arbiter, Moscow welcomed some level of Turkish participation in order to take some of the burden off itself and avoid direct confrontation with Ankara.

Moscow is not ready to accept Turkish dominance in the South Caucasus, but it is open to an increased role for Turkey that in turn helps stem direct Western influence in the region. From the Kremlin’s perspective, it is better to establish a balance of power and spheres of influence among the regional powers than to let the West dominate the Caucasus. Russia won’t tolerate Turkish interference everywhere, especially not in the North Caucasus, Crimea or eastern Ukraine, but it sees more opportunities for coordination with Ankara than with the West. An added bonus for Russia is that Turkey and Iran can balance each other.

From Russia’s perspective, the Armenian-Azerbaijani war enabled it to achieve several goals. First, Russia increased its military influence in the area by sending thousands of peacekeepers to the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Second, Armenia’s defeat greatly reduced the risk of an Armenian outreach to the West. Third, through the Dagestan region, Russia can create significant zones of economic cooperation with Iran, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan. (Moscow would also like to reopen Yerevan-Baku-Dagestan transit routes, including oil railways between Baku and Nakhchivan.) Fourth, the potential for diplomatic and economic cooperation among the regional players could entice Georgian elites to reconsider their hostility toward Moscow. Finally, the war and its resolution created a high-profile precedent in which non-Western powers were able to settle an international conflict on their own.

Conflict Areas in Armenia and Azerbaijan
(click to enlarge)

Iran

From the beginning, Tehran abstained from supporting any side in the conflict because it could not afford to get drawn in. It issued boilerplate diplomatic statements regarding the cessation of hostilities and the importance of Armenia’s territorial integrity (and thus Iran’s own security), but it accepted Baku’s right to reclaim lost areas. Iran proposed its own version of the platform called the “3+3” model, differing mostly in name only, through which Tehran emphasized the importance of regional economic cooperation and integration. Both, after all, would help Iran to circumvent U.S. sanctions.

Iran’s geographic location makes its participation essential for any six-member framework to take root. It is the only country that has diplomatic relations with the rest of the members, but its ties go even deeper. For example, Iran is the one territory through which Baku can reach Nakhchivan without crossing Armenia. More, Iranian companies are preparing to help in the reconstruction of war-torn areas. Iran feels that settlement of the decadeslong regional conflict is clandestine of geostrategic opportunities. The revival of economic cooperation in the South Caucasus can reanimate projects meant to connect the communication corridors in the Persian Gulf with the Black Sea region.

Tehran, always keenly aware of geopolitical consequences, doesn’t want Turkey and Azerbaijan to develop a strong military and economic alliance. Instead, Iran favors a strong Russian presence and a stable Armenia.

Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan remained pragmatic in its approach to waging war and waging peace. It understood Russia’s limitations, and it knew no one in the region wanted a confrontation between Russia and Turkey. But it also understood that without Russia’s presence in the region it would risk surrendering to Turkish geopolitical projects. Baku therefore agreed to return the territories that were occupied in the 1990s and to mitigate the risks of revolution. In other words, Azerbaijan helped maintain the status quo after the fighting.

Russia, Azerbaijan and Turkey are very concerned with the prospect of revolution in the South Caucasus, especially in how the uprisings could invite Western intervention. And even though President Ilham Aliyev has repeatedly said that the Nagorno-Karabakh question has been answered, the fact that so many territories are populated by ethnic Armenians still in control of Nagorno-Karabakh argues otherwise.

Armenia

Armenia is the weakest economic and military power in the region, one that relies strongly on Iran for its political needs and entirely on Russia for its defense needs. It’s little wonder, then, that it lost the recent war. To some degree, the platform was predicated on Armenia’s legislative elections, as everyone relied on Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to honor the cease-fires signed last November. (Pashinyan’s party won a majority in parliament, and Pashinyan himself will continue to fulfill the commitments he personally signed.)

In theory, Yerevan may try to engage Western countries, particularly the U.S. and France, and even boycott the peace process. However, the presence of Russia and Azerbaijan (backed by Turkey) doesn’t change how it feels about Armenia. So everyone is essentially waiting for Yerevan to fulfill its commitments to the peace agreement. Toward that end, the next move is to allow the construction of the so-called Zangezur corridor from Azerbaijan to Nakhchivan, which will include railway and transport connections. It may even include oil and gas pipelines. (The Russian FSB will likely control the corridor.) Moreover, all sides must delimit and demarcate their borders, but only after the peace deal is in place. Without a settlement between Yerevan and Baku, it is simply impossible to build greater projects, short of Azerbaijan building the corridor with the help of its army.

Prospective Trade Corridors in the Caucasus
(click to enlarge)

Georgia

Of all the countries involved in the platform, Georgia is perhaps the most reluctant, given its strong ties to the West and its problems with Russia. Turkey has already started a diplomatic campaign to address its reticence, claiming Georgian participation in the platform may become an opportunity to eliminate the problems between Tbilisi and Moscow. The government in Tbilisi has sent mixed signals over the platform proposal. Though the president acknowledged Georgia must be involved in the platform’s creation, the Foreign Ministry clarified by saying how difficult it will be to engage with a country (Russia) that occupies territory (Abkhazia) that Georgia considers its own.

For Georgia, the increased role of Turkey guarantees a strategic balance against Russian influence. However, Georgia’s alignment with the West and its desire to join NATO will likely rankle the other members that want to limit Western participation. Either way, the Russia factor remains pivotal for Georgia’s participation. Tbilisi is risking being ousted from the regional projects while jeopardizing its potential NATO membership. For decades, Georgia has benefited from the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, so as relations between Yerevan and Baku improve, Georgia may become a much less attractive market, especially for oil and gas companies.

In sum, the platform, and thus the regional balance of power, is still in flux. Georgia is unlikely to join it, and Iran and Armenia have to approach it pragmatically, rather than enthusiastically. And the region will fail to see the potential of its economic development if Armenia and Azerbaijan don’t sign the peace agreement. The big question is the limits of Turkish-Russian cooperation. While their respective interests may favor stability at the moment, the two countries have a history of warfare. Iran’s presence mitigates the risk of a confrontation between them.

Even so, there may be room for gains under current conditions because all three understand the West could use these conflicts to its benefit. It’s in their interests to resolve conflict where possible. The same can’t be said of the U.S.

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GPF: Turkmenistan
« Reply #166 on: August 23, 2021, 08:21:51 AM »
he insular Central Asian country could attract refugees and extremists.
By: Ekaterina Zolotova

Last week as the Taliban surged into Kabul, effectively completing their takeover of Afghanistan, attention in surrounding states and major Eurasian powers turned to a different mass movement that was only just beginning: the surge of Afghan refugees out of the country. Massive refugee outflows will strain neighboring economies and societies, and could spread the threat of terrorism to states with little capability to defend themselves. One such state, the weakest of Afghanistan’s neighbors, is Turkmenistan – a country rich in energy resources and poor in military capabilities. Ashgabat’s vulnerabilities will likely force it to abandon its long-standing preference for neutrality, kicking off a competition for influence among its more powerful neighbors.

Fortress Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan is landlocked, but it has significant energy resources and is a valuable transit state in Central Asia. From north to south it forms part of the link between Russia and the Persian Gulf, and from west to east it lies along the route between Europe and the rest of Central Asia. It has the fourth-largest proven gas reserves in the world and is part of the so-called strategic energy ellipse, which combines the hydrocarbon reserves of the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. Unsurprisingly, Turkmenistan is a flashpoint for regional powers: Russia wants to reassert its influence in the post-Soviet space; Iran shares a long border with Turkmenistan as well as centuries-old cultural and historical links; Turkey is interested in strengthening its political, ideological and economic positions in the region; and China wants access to its cheap energy resources.


(click to enlarge)

But Turkmenistan is notoriously reclusive and secretive, and reliable information about it is hard to come by. (For example, officially it has not had a single case of COVID-19.) It is the most insular and authoritarian of all the post-Soviet states, a product of its difficult situation after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Post-Soviet Turkmenistan is resource-rich but population-poor; it has the second-most territory but the fewest people among the five Central Asian republics. Ashgabat participates in regional trade and sends its students to study abroad, but its political and military neutrality annoys key partners who would like to see Turkmenistan as their ally. It is not a member of any of the regional economic or political groupings, such as the Eurasian Economic Union and the Commonwealth of Independent States (it is an associated member of the latter group), and it avoids military organizations and alliances like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. This allows Turkmenistan to preserve its sovereignty and avoid giving too much influence to an outside power.


(click to enlarge)

New Destination

The collapse of the Afghan government threatens to burst the bubble Turkmenistan has crafted around itself. The inflow of Afghans and ethnic Turkmens, who make up the sixth-largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, could pose a far greater threat to Turkmenistan than to other countries in the region precisely because of Ashgabat’s weak economy and system of rigid political control.

Already the Turkmen authorities are preventing Afghans and ethnic Turkmen from crossing the border into their territory, but it’s unclear how long they can hold out. Neighboring Uzbekistan built a barrier along its relatively short border with Afghanistan, the most heavily guarded border in the world. The Tajik-Afghan border is reinforced by the constant presence of Russian troops conducting joint exercises. The Turkmen army lacks the capabilities of its Pakistani and Chinese counterparts, and at any rate its border with Afghanistan is about 800 kilometers (500 miles) and runs through flat plains, which are hard to police yet easy to cross. Much of its military equipment, remnants of the Soviet era, is likely inoperable. Modernization efforts have been inadequate, and the personnel are rumored to be poorly trained and unskilled.

Making matters worse, Turkmenistan has for years suffered chronic food shortages, hard currency shortages and high unemployment, and its budget – which depends on energy exports – is strained. Its economic crisis began many years ago, partly as a result of lost gas revenue due to the termination of its contract with Gazprom in 2016 (the supply agreement was renegotiated in April 2019), as well as hyperinflation and several lean years. Coronavirus restrictions pushed food prices higher, which especially hurt regions that depend on other parts of the country for their supply of vegetables and fruits. Ashgabat introduced coupons for flour, butter, sugar and other basic goods, but even these subsidized products are becoming unaffordable, and there’s rising discontent in some regions over the way local authorities have distributed the subsidies. Opposition figures, especially those living in exile abroad, have criticized the government for its poor handling of the pandemic, natural disasters and the economy.

In Need of Friends

A big influx of refugees could only destabilize the economy further and fuel protests. And in fact, Turkmenistan’s fragility, lack of natural barriers, and enormous gas reserves and pipeline infrastructure could attract those who want to spread terrorism and extremism.

The Turkmen economy is built around energy exports: Almost 90 percent of all its exports consist of energy products, accounting for nearly a quarter of its gross domestic product. But Turkmenistan’s major gas fields are located close to the Afghan border. Moreover, Turkmenistan plays a central role in the network of gas pipelines covering Russia, China and Iran, and is key to plans for a trans-Caucasian gas pipeline to Europe as well as projects to supply gas to India via Afghanistan and Pakistan. Notably, the Taliban support this latter project, known uncreatively as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, since they themselves are interested in a consistent source of energy, but it’s unclear how exactly they plan to protect the infrastructure within Afghanistan if opposition to their return swells. Moreover, other participants in the pipeline may not take kindly to giving the Taliban a role in the project or seeing the Taliban spread their influence beyond Afghanistan’s borders. Given its precarious situation, Turkmenistan can’t afford threats to these pipelines.

Turkmenistan’s diplomatic policy is to be friendly with everyone. It maintains regular contacts with Russia, China, Iran, Turkey and Taliban representatives to ensure the security of its borders, and it describes the relationship between the Afghan and Turkmen peoples as fraternal. But Ashgabat is ill-equipped to prevent the spread of extremism and instability across its borders. This was not a significant challenge as long as the U.S. military was in Afghanistan, but now the economic and security situations have turned against Turkmenistan, and its neutrality is not an asset. Alignment with Russia, Iran, Turkey and/or China could enhance the security of the country, but only if its leaders are prepared to abandon their long-standing policy of neutrality. They probably do not have a choice. The competition for Turkmenistan will soon begin.

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GPF: Russia reinforces its buffer in Central Asia
« Reply #167 on: August 31, 2021, 02:17:19 AM »
August 30, 2021
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Brief: Russia Reinforces Its Buffer in Central Asia

A series of military drills are intended to shore up defenses and warn off threats.
By: Geopolitical Futures

Background: Central Asia buffers Russia from the ongoing instability in Afghanistan, but Moscow fears that increased migration and the threat of terrorism and extremism could destabilize the region.

Central Asia
(click to enlarge)

What Happened: The Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization announced plans to conduct military exercises in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan because of the situation in Afghanistan. The drills in Kyrgyzstan will run from Sept. 7 to Sept. 9 and involve several thousand troops. Three more exercises are planned near the Tajik-Afghan border in October, and a fourth is set for November. Separately, about 500 Russian troops in Tajikistan participated in tactical maneuvers on Monday. Previously, Russia transferred T-72 tanks to the Tajik mountains for exercises.

Bottom Line: The last thing Moscow wants is to get involved militarily in Afghanistan. Its priority instead is to reinforce its buffer in Central Asia with troop deployments and exercises. This is also a useful opportunity for Russia to win back some influence in the post-Soviet space and keep other major players out.

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GPF: The threat of another Caucasus Conflict
« Reply #168 on: October 06, 2021, 03:18:42 PM »
October 6, 2021
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The Threat of Another Caucasus Conflict
Iran and Turkey are upping the ante, but a repeat of last year’s war is unlikely.
By: Ekaterina Zolotova
A year after the brief war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, tensions are rising again in the Caucasus – though this time with a different set of contenders. Last Friday, Iran began military exercises near the Azerbaijani border in response to Azerbaijani-Turkish drills, prompting Baku and Ankara to announce more joint drills for this week. The entire region is taking note: Georgia’s defense minister met with officials from Azerbaijan and Turkey, Armenia’s foreign minister left for Iran, and Russia’s foreign minister will host his Iranian counterpart in Moscow on Wednesday. As bad as things look right now, however, the chances of another outbreak of war are low.

The 2020 Conflict

The Caucasus region is extremely fragmented. Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia are in constant competition to determine their place in the post-Soviet world. At the same time, regional powers Russia, Turkey and Iran compete with one another for resources and influence in the region, part of a clash that goes back centuries. From the 16th to the 18th century, Turkey and Iran were engaged in constant wars for the region until the Russian Empire leapfrogged them both and then solidified its control further by establishing the Soviet system. The Soviet Union’s breakdown reawakened the Caucasus and the larger power struggle for control of it.


(click to enlarge)

Among the three bigger players, Russia and Turkey have significantly increased their influence since last year’s Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Moscow deployed nearly 2,000 peacekeepers and 90 armored personnel carriers to enforce the eventual armistice. This was extremely important for Russia, which, while still the dominant player in the Caucasus, is less and less capable each year of matching the money and projects offered by the other big players. Maximizing its leverage in the Caucasus is not just a vanity project for the Kremlin: The region borders the North Caucasus republics, which are located within Russian territory and are among its least stable areas. The potential for the Taliban’s seizure of power in Afghanistan to trigger a wave of migrants in the region has heightened Moscow’s anxieties. Close ties with the South Caucasus republics to some extent enable Moscow to control the emergence of potential threats to its own territory. In addition, the southern republics form a buffer protecting Russian interests from Iran and Turkey, and give Russia some leverage in energy corridors that pass through the region.

Turkey, meanwhile, significantly expanded its presence by strengthening economic and military ties with Azerbaijan, including supporting it during last year’s conflict. With neo-Ottoman ideas on the rise in Ankara, Turkey in recent years returned to the region, touting the close ties between itself and Baku and the idea of “two states, one nation.” Energy-deficient Turkey is also interested in the region’s oil and gas reserves and infrastructure, which connects Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Its relationship with Azerbaijan solidified, Ankara’s latest moves include trying to improve ties with Georgia and hinting at the restoration of political dialogue with Armenia.

Iran, unlike Turkey and Russia, mostly stayed out of the last Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, distracted by its economic problems and instability in the Levant. Tehran also feared its involvement would strengthen the separatist movement of ethnic Azerbaijanis within Iran, especially since Iran supplied humanitarian and financial aid to Armenia. With Iran’s help, Armenia secured a corridor to the outside world under the blockade of Azerbaijan and Turkey. Tehran gained nothing from the conflict but an invitation from the leaders of Turkey and Azerbaijan to participate in a “platform of six” (involving the three Caucasus republics and the three regional powers) to unblock transport and economic ties in the region. The six-party talks are unlikely to lead to any tangible results.

Iranian Discontent

Tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan began to grow at the end of the summer. After the 2020 conflict, Azerbaijani border guards gained control of part of a road between two Armenian cities and imposed travel restrictions enabling them to stop foreign (primarily Iranian) trucks to collect transport taxes and duties. Tehran also is critical of Azerbaijan’s close ties with Israel, which supplied Baku with a large number of modern weapons, including drones. Iran already faces growing pressure from the U.S. and Israel over its proxy groups in the Levant, and it does not want another front opened up on its northern border.

Turkey’s growing role in the Caucasus might be an even bigger concern for Iran. Ankara is trying to build its relationships with all of the Caucasus republics and conducting frequent military exercises with Azerbaijan. Last year, Turkish authorities announced plans to build a railway connecting Turkish territory with Azerbaijan, and the two states signed a preferential trade agreement. Special operations forces from Turkey, Azerbaijan and Pakistan held joint exercises in Baku for the first time in early September, followed by joint drills involving Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia. The latter alignment is seen by Tehran as a direct challenge and a counter to cooperation among Iran, Armenia and Russia.

Iran also looks with concern at Turkey’s growing popularity in Turkic communities as a result of Ankara’s support for Baku. As many as 30 million ethnic Azerbaijanis – about 25 percent of the population – live in Iran. Armenian-Turkish statements about improving relations are also worrying for Tehran, which has traditionally secured the loyalty of ethnic Armenians through patronage. If Turkey manages to reach an accord with Armenia, it would deprive Iran of leverage against Turkey and enable Ankara to extend its power projection deeper into the South Caucasus and Central Asia.

Why There Won’t Be a War

Tehran has deployed multiple launch rocket systems and ballistic missile launchers with a range of up to 700 kilometers (435 miles) in northern Iran, according to reports. Among the Iranian troops deployed to the border are two armored brigades, an airborne brigade, artillery and engineering units, and units equipped with drones. Iranian aviation has concentrated at airfields close to the northern border. In response, Turkish and Azerbaijani drone patrols are constant. Despite the buildup, however, another military confrontation is unlikely for several reasons.

First, Iran’s main foreign policy priorities lie elsewhere. Tehran faces graver threats from the territories of Turkey, Iraq, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Pakistan than from Armenia or Azerbaijan. Iran is embroiled in a proxy war in Syria and has the nuclear standoff with the West. The possible return of Iranian oil to the market has also led Iran to reopen dialogue with its old rival Saudi Arabia, in particular to reach a bilateral settlement regarding Iraq.

Second, Turkey has problems of its own that limit its ambitions. It is tangled up in the Syrian conflict, where cooperation with Iran is a must. Its economy is in shambles. And Turkey could not withstand the simultaneous pressure from Europe and Russia that would follow from another conflict in the Caucasus.

Finally, Iran has calculated that Russia will not allow the emergence of a bipolar order in the region, split between Turkey, Azerbaijan and probably Georgia on the one side and Iran and Armenia on the other. Such a realignment would challenge Moscow’s position in the region. Another conflict would draw in Russia, which would once again play peacemaker and strengthen its position. Moreover, although Iran is suspicious of Russian influence in the Caucasus, Tehran is not ready to enter into confrontation with Moscow. Iranian-Russian cooperation in other areas, like Syria and the oil sector, is more important for Tehran than the Caucasus.

Iran wants to show that it will not tolerate the presence of a competitor in the Caucasus, even if the region isn’t its highest priority, and that it can play the part of regional mediator, partner and adviser. The intended target of this message is Turkey and its would-be partners in the region. At the same time, Moscow, which is not enthusiastic about the growing influence of any state in the Caucasus, is choosing to wait and see.